‘Mockingbird’s’ message still resounds 

Fifty years after Harper Lee’s novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” won the Pulitzer Prize for its depiction of racial intolerance and hatred, members of the U.S. Congress have been the recipients of racial and homophobic epithets and death threats.

As we wonder just how much we’ve grown, TheatreWorks’ new production of Christopher Sergel’s theatrical adaptation of the novel seems right on target.

“‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ needed to be part of our 40th anniversary season,” says TheatreWorks’ founding artistic director Robert Kelley. “Our mission has always been to present plays that explore that diversity of the Silicon Valley and Bay Area in general, and the interactions of different cultural and ethnic groups. This is one of the defining novels and plays about the racial divide and American values, and is important to revisit.”

The story, which captures the American mindset of the mid-1930s, is seen through the eyes of an innocent 9-year old white girl, Scout.

As the play unfolds, Scout’s father, attorney Atticus Finch, is representing Tom Robinson, a “Negro” (the polite term used for African-Americans at the time) falsely accused of rape.

As her father defends Robinson against injustice, Scout, her older brother Jem, and Scout’s friend Dill transcend their childish fears of the other and learn the realities of prejudice and hatred.

Lee’s one and only novel may hold so much power because it was based in part on her own family experience.

In 1919, six years before she was born, Harper Lee’s father, attorney Amasa Coleman Lee, represented two black men accused of murder. In addition, Scout’s friend Dill seems inspired by Harper Lee’s childhood friend, Truman Capote.

“It’s really intriguing that ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ was written in the midst of racial change, which we’re still going through today,”

Kelley says. “This landmark of American literature looks back at one of the more desperate times in American race relations, and asks us to assess where we are now. There’s a wonderful speech about justice and truth that Atticus Finch delivers in the courtroom. It’s remarkable the way it evokes some of the language and spirit that you get from our president as he tries to rally America to his cause. I’ve been directing the play eight hours a day, and the rest of the time looking at my TV set and going, ‘Holy cow. What’s happened to America?’ It’s unfortunate that the play’s relevance is demonstrated by the events of the last few weeks, but there it is.”

 

IF YOU GO

To Kill a Mockingbird

Presented by TheatreWorks

Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View
When: Previews at 8 p.m. Wednesday-Friday; opens Saturday; performances run 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes May 9
Tickets: $27 to $62
Contact: (650) 463-1960, www.theatreworks.org

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Doug Graham

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